This article first appeared on Scroll.in

 

Wimbledon champion. Two time Grand Slam runner up. Five time Federation Cup winner. Three time Olympic medallist. A highest ranking of World No. 2. Not to forget 33 Women’s Tour Association titles.

Conchita Martinez, the captain of Spain’s Davis Cup team, has an impressive resumé. And an even more impressive team. On Saturday, she notched up the first win of her Davis Cup career, one that is likely to be followed by more success. The fact that she is a female captain of a male team was rightly relegated to the sidelines.

Why do I bring it up again then? I wish I did not have to. I wish that it was normal in the largely parochial world of Indian sport to have a female leading a male team. Unfortunately, that is still not the case. It is in fact, far from it.

A post-Olympic-mortem report highlighted some startling facts. “As many as eight SAs [Sport Associations] do not have female representation on their governing bodies. This excludes four NSFs [National Sport Federations] that have not provided any details of their governing bodies.”

That is, eight sports, who also field women’s teams, do not have a single female in their administrations, let alone females handling the male teams. “Of the other SAs, women constitute between 2% and 8% of the governing bodies. This doesn’t include Hockey India, which has a 34% female representation,” said the report.

Breaking the glass ceiling

This is why Conchita Martinez is a big deal. That is why she is news. “I’m happy that things like this happen, that people see this as normal”, said Martinez in an exclusive chat with Scroll.in. “I’m happy to be working with the men. If I can be an example to make it happen in India, then I’m happy for that.”

Of the 130 countries that play Davis Cup, only five have ever had female captains. Martinez is also the current Fed Cup – played by women – team captain. With the win against India, she has now led both the Fed Cup and Davis Cup Spanish teams back into the World Group.

As a player, Martinez was known for the extreme top-spin she imparted on her forehands. As a coach, she has had to fend off some tricky shots early in her tenure. Following Spain’s relegation from the World Group in 2014, Carlos Moya, the coach at that time, stepped down. He was replaced by Gala Leon, who became Spain’s first female Davis Cup captain. Incidentally, it came soon after Andy Murray had appointed Amelie Mauresmo his coach.

But Leon’s appointment was met by reservations from the top players (she had a career high ranking of 27, and had never won a Grand Slam), as well some outright sexism from Toni Nadal, Rafael Nadal’s uncle and coach. In 2015, 44 Spanish players – including Nadal and David Ferrer – signed an open letter asking for more financial transparency from the Spanish Federation, which precipitated a change in presidency and, consequently, in Davis Cup captaincy.

It was against this turbulent backdrop that Martinez took over. Even before accepting the job, she opened clear lines of dialogue with the players. “I talked to all of the players”, she said. “I asked questions. Everybody was (looking) forward for this to happen. So I took this step to help tennis in Spain.”

A pathway for the future

How different is it handling the Fed Cup and Davis Cup teams? “(It is) different but not a lot. You still handle a team. You still work with players. You still work with tennis,” she reiterated. “(There is a) little difference of being a woman and a man, but if you work professionally it’s not so different.”

Role models and pathways are the twin pillars on which the growth of sport rests. Look at how women’s badminton has grown since Saina Nehwal. Go further back, and you can trace the explosion of cricket in India to the 1983 World Cup win. That is how a sport infects the next generation. Once that welcome virus has taken hold, it seeks the means to fulfil the urges that it creates. That is where pathways come in. Academies at the grassroots and junior tournaments play this role.

The young children who came to the RK Khanna tennis stadium in Delhi saw athleticism, team spirit, respect, and raw star appeal. With luck, their subconscious minds also imprinted a new, mould-breaking concept when they saw Conchita Martinez leading her team on to the court. Is it too much to hope that by the time these children bloom as adults, it will be the new normal in India too?